For a country that figures among the world’s largest arms importers, India’s oft-repeated assertion about achieving self-reliance in the defence sector may appear too ambitious and far-fetched. At the same time, it cannot afford to compromise on defence preparedness because it is wedged between two hostile neighbours—Pakistan and China. In such a situation, a fine balancing is needed involving a push to indigenisation initiatives and simultaneously seeking advanced weaponry from abroad to avoid glaring asymmetry on the twin battlefronts. The recent Rs 48,000-crore deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the purchase of 83 indigenous fighter jets ‘Tejas’ comes as a shot in the arm for the ‘Make in India’ drive. The Light Combat Aircraft, a fully self-made, single-engine aircraft, has proved to be better than its foreign equivalents on several parameters and comparatively cheaper. However, it must be pointed out that large-scale indigenisation can’t happen overnight. It requires sustained efforts to overhaul and reorient the defence public sector units along with the active involvement of the private sector, technocrats, and top institutes of science and technology, as recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence. Given the geopolitical realities in the immediate neighbourhood, the armed forces can’t be expected to keep waiting for domestic equivalents during an exigency and dependence on foreign vendors can’t be reduced overnight. The focus should be on facilitating collaboration between international manufacturers and Indian firms while ensuring a level playing field.
The transfer of technology by foreign players can help in making India self-reliant on the defence front and also boost the nation’s potential to cater to the global market through cutting-edge research and innovation. Traditionally, India’s approach to defence procurement reforms has been lethargic and largely indecisive. The perceived military superiority against Pakistan and a belief that China would adhere to the mutual restraint understanding may have lulled the policymakers into a sense of complacency. However, given the bitter experiences involving instances of air combat with Pakistan soon after the Balakot strikes and the Galwan Valley standoff with China, such complacency would prove costly. The need for state-of-the-art weaponry in fortifying the borders can’t be overemphasised. The Budget had proposed a 19% hike in the capital outlay for military modernisation. This is a welcome proposal, in tune with government’s plan to spend over Rs 9 lakh crore on defence modernisation. The Centre has also enhanced FDI in the defence sector by up to 74% through the automatic route and 100% through the government route.
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